Canterbury’s First Full-Time Paid Surgeon – 1909

In 1909, after years of surgeries being performed by brave general practitioners, Sir Hugh Acland became Canterbury’s first full-time paid surgeon. 

Hugh was the youngest of eleven siblings; his father (John Barton Arundel Acland) first arrived at Lyttelton in 1855 with fellow British lawyer, Charles Tripp. Wishing to be sheep farmers, the completely inexperienced pair became farming cadets to two of our biggest pioneering personalities – William Guise Brittan and Henry Tancred.

Acland eventually bought land in the back country of South Canterbury, making him the first to graze sheep in the mountains there.  His farm was very successful and grew to 100,000 acres.  He named it the Mt. Peel Station.  Hugh’s mother – Emily Acland (nee Harper) – had great Canterbury roots herself, being one of the daughters of Bishop Harper, Canterbury’s first Anglican Bishop.

Hugh was born at Mt Peel Station in 1874.  After boarding at Christ’s College during his school years, he then attended medical school in London.  When the Boer War broke out, he volunteered to be an attending civilian doctor.  With his patience ways, good humour and his grounded farming roots, he was soon popular amongst the wounded troops.  Upon completing his service, he returned to London to finish his schooling.  It was there that he met his future wife Evelyn, a nurse who was training under Florence Nightingale. 

In 1903, the newlywed Aclands were settling down in a house in Christchurch’s Bealey Ave while Hugh set himself up as a General Practitioner.  His surgery was ‘Ironside House’ on the corner of Salisbury and Montreal Streets.  Today, the fully restored ‘Ironside House’ – also known as the Harlequin Public House ‘ (2016) – still remains on this site as one of Christchurch’s most prized heritage gems, first built in 1899.

Just 4 short years after becoming Canterbury’s first full-time paid surgeon, Hugh was back in active war service, serving as a Major for the New Zealand Military Medical Service during WWI.  He was to perform over 4000 surgeries.  He was lucky not to have lost his life during this time, as his unit accompanied the troops on the ammunition ship, the ‘SS Marquette’ in 1915.  Unusual for medical servicemen to be transported on anything other than a clearly marked hospital ship, the Marquette was understandably torpedoed by a German submarine. 167 lives were lost, including 9 nurses and Hugh spent 7 hours in the sea before being rescued.  The Nurse’s Memorial Chapel at the Christchurch Public Hospital honours their sacrifice. 

Back in New Zealand after the war, Hugh continued his work with the city’s returned veterans, operating Christchurch Public Hospital’s Military Orthopaedic Ward in addition to his normal duties as a surgeon.  As Canterbury’s top-most surgeon, he was soon serving on boards such as the New Zealand Medical Board (based in London), the North Canterbury Hospital Board (1927), Australasian Cancer Research and performed as the honorary surgeon to the General Governor (1931).

The 1930’s proved to be an extra busy decade for Hugh as he decided to run for Mayor in 1935.  Unfortunately, he lost by the narrowest of margins but did become a Christchurch City Councillor the following year – serving the city until 1941.  This disappointing blow of becoming Mayor was, I’m sure, softened by his recent Knighthood (1933) and being awarded the ‘King George V Silver Jubilee Medal’ (1935) for his services in medicine.

As the world entered in WWII, Hugh accepted the position of Assistant Commander of Medical Services for the Southern Military District.  With many young doctors serving overseas, the older doctors, like Hugh, worked longer and harder hours in their absence.  They also watched over the thousands of returned wounded.

Finally, in 1948, Hugh retired at the age of 74. In his later years he could be found tending to his roses in the garden at Chippenham Lodge (Browns Road, Merivale) or gathering up family’s history at Mt Peel Station.  As the Acland family celebrated the 100th anniversary of their arrival in Canterbury, sadly Hugh was on his death bed suffering from Emphysema.
He died on 15
th April 1956 and is buried at Mount Peel’s Church of the Innocents.

*Image courtesy of the New Zeland National Library- Colonel Sir Hugh Acland, CM-G., 0.8. E., who has. been appointed Assistant Director of Medical Services in the Southern Military District. (Evening Post, 09 February 1940). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.*

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